Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting you caught up on milestones, personalities, and important historical events in aviation from April 9 through April 12.


April 9, 1967 – The first flight of the Boeing 737. Following the struggles of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, Boeing stepped in with its 707, a four-engine, swept wing airliner that took the world by storm. They followed that with the 727 tri-jet, but airlines began clamoring for a new jet that could supplement the 727. Development of the 737 began in 1964, with plans to create an airliner that would accommodate 50-60 passengers. The German carrier Lufthansa signed on as the launch customer a year later, and had Boeing increase the seating capacity to 100 passengers, and then when United Airlines signed on, they wanted an airliner with still more capacity. So the 737 was lengthened again, with the United version becoming the 737-200 and the Lufthansa version becoming the 737-100. But Boeing was already far behind the competition in this class of airliner, competing with the Douglas DC-9 and Fokker F28 Fellowship. To speed the development process, Boeing based the fuselage of the new airliner largely on the 727, using 60% of the 727's fuselage shape, particularly the upper lobe. This gave the 737 the same cross section and allowed the use of the same cargo pallets as the earlier airliner. And bringing in the 727 fuselage also meant the adoption of 6-across seating in coach, which gave the 737 a distinct advantage over its Douglas rival, which featured 5-across seating. Other advances included the elimination of the flight engineer position, which helped set a new industry standard for only two crew members in the cockpit. And the relatively short fuselage of the first 737s led it to be dubbed the “square airplane,” since its wingspan matched its length. Boeing built the first 737 at Plant 2 in Seattle, and it was the last new airliner to be produced in the building where the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress were built. Despite the building’s size, the tail of the 737 couldn’t be attached inside, so it was fitted outdoors using a crane. While the 737 has become the best selling airliner in history, its early days were less rosy. By 1970, Boeing had received orders for only 37 aircraft, and they were considering shutting down production and selling the 737 design to Japanese aircraft manufacturers. But with the cancellation of the Boeing 2707 supersonic transport (which caused 50,000 Boeing employees to lose their job), and reduction in the production of the 747, enough money was freed up to continue development of the 737 into a wider range of variants, including the convertible 737C model with accommodations for palletized freight, and the 737QC (Quick Change) variant that featured palletized seating and allowed for a rapid switch from cargo to passenger configurations. Following the production of the 737-100 and -200, the last of which was delivered in 1988, Boeing began developing the -300/-400/-500 series, which would later be known as the 737 Classic, each offering improvements in range, economy and passenger capacity. Boeing undertook further development of the 737 to compete with rival Airbus and followed the Classic with the 737 Next Generation, which encompasses models -600/-700/-800/-900ER beginning in 1991. While much of the 737NG is essentially new, it retains enough commonality with earlier aircraft to make it attractive to airlines with older fleets of 737s. And in 2011, Boeing announced the 737 MAX program, which will provide newer, still more efficient CFM International LEAP-1B engines for greater range and fuel economy. Deliveries of the MAX are scheduled to begin in 2017. In July 2012, the 737 earned the distinction of being the first airliner to surpass 10,000 orders, and nearly 9,000 have been delivered so far. When it was first rolled out, few could have predicted that the “Baby Boeing” would become such a global success, with two 737s departing or landing every 5 seconds somewhere in the world. (Photo via Boeing)


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April 12, 1981 – The first flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, and the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program. Up until the launch of the Space Shuttle, flying into space was done in expendable spacecraft. Rockets were left behind in orbit after their fuel was spent, or burned up re-entering the atmosphere, and the capsules that held the astronauts and cosmonauts were so heavily damaged by the friction and heat of re-entry that they could not be used again. Not only was it wasteful, it was also terribly expensive. So beginning all the way back in 1969, the same year that Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon, NASA began thinking about building a spacecraft that could be used again and again, hoping that such an aircraft could function essentially as a “space truck” that could haul payloads into space relatively cheaply. The Shuttle program got its official start in 1972 with an announcement by President Richard M. Nixon that NASA would develop what would later be called a Space Transport System (hence, all Shuttle missions were given the prefix “STS”). Initially, the hopes for the new system were quite ambitious, with NASA hoping to preform as many as 50 launches per year. But before NASA could start hauling payloads to space, they had to decided exactly what the Shuttle would look like. Many designs were considered, and there was much debate over just how much of the system would be reused. There was talk of placing air-breathing engines on both the Shuttle and its booster, so both could be flown like a plane during landing, or even flown between landing and launch sites. But ultimately, designers settled on a design where the orbiter sat atop a huge fuel tank, which would not be reused, and was boosted into space by a pair of solid rocket boosters which would be retrieved from the ocean and used again. The first Shuttle, Enterprise (originally named Constitution, but changed after a huge write-in campaign to honor Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek TV series), was used for flying and landing tests, while Columbia would be the first Shuttle to blast off and reach space. The first mission, STS-1, was commanded by veteran astronaut John Young, who was the ninth person to walk on the Moon and the commander of Apollo 16 in 1972. The Shuttle Pilot was Robert Crippen, who was going to space for the first time but would later command three other Shuttle missions. While all previous space programs had launched unmanned missions to test the system, STS-1 was the first time NASA launched a spacecraft with astronauts onboard its first flight. NASA had considered using STS-1 to test the Return To Launch Site (RTLS) abort procedure, but Commander Young overruled that idea, citing the danger involved in such a test (by the end of the Shuttle program, no Shuttle had ever had to use the RTLS procedure). Thus, STS-1 was carried out as a planned orbital mission. Twenty years to the day after the launch of the first manned space flight of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (somewhat serendipitously, it must be said, since Columbia’s first launch two days earlier had been scrubbed), STS-1 blasted off without incident. Its only payload was a flight instrumentation package, and the mission was designed to test the overall spaceworthiness of the Shuttle, achieve orbit, and return. After attaining an altitude of 166 nautical miles and circling the Earth 37 times, Columbia returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California. Columbia would go on to serve NASA for 22 years and complete 27 missions before it was lost during re-entry on its 28th mission, the second orbiter lost after Challenger in 1986. All seven crew members died as the orbiter disintegrated after being damaged during launch. (NASA photo)


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April 12, 1961 – Yuri Gagarin makes the first manned spaceflight. Man’s journey into space has had a number of milestones, the first of which was the launch of the Russian satellite named Sputnik 1 into Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. But with that launch, the journey became a race, a race that actually traces its roots back to Germany and WWII. The Germans were far ahead of the Russians and the Western allies in rocket technology, having unleashed their V-2 ballistic rocket against England and Europe. Following the war, captured scientific data—and captured scientists—would form the nucleus of the space programs for the Cold War powers. At first, the emphasis was on creating ballistic missiles, but with the announcement of the International Geophysical Year set for 1957, the Americans said that they would place a satellite in Earth orbit, and the Russians replied that they would do the same. The Russians were the first, with Sputnik 1. The American response to the diminutive Russian satellite was their own Explorer 1 satellite, and the space race shifted into high gear. For reasons that were more propaganda than science, each country wanted to be the first to put a man into space. The American effort to get to space first was Project Mercury, which began with a series of 20 unmanned developmental flights beginning in 1959, while the Russians initiated the Vostok program. The first Soviet cosmonauts, like their American counterparts, were all military pilots, though none were as experienced in flying as the Mercury 7, since the Russian program used considerably more automation than the American program. At this point, it was more important just to be first. And not just first into space, but first into orbit. The Russians carried out a series of test launches, some carrying dogs and other biological specimens. The dogs Belka and Strelka were the first living creatures to leave the planet and, lucky for the space dogs, the first to be recovered from orbit. For the historic manned launch into orbit, three cosmonauts were chosen, Gagarin and two backups, Gherman Titov and Grigori Nelyubov. The Vostok rocket was erected on its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and with a cry of “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”), Gagarin was launched into space at 6:07 am local time. The rocket worked flawlessly, and Gagarin reported that he could see the Earth, and that everything was working well. From launch to landing, the entire flight, with its single orbit of the Earth, took 108 minutes. The capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere safely and, as he neared the ground, Gagarin was automatically ejected and finished the descent with his own parachute. The capsule descended separately by its own parachute. After landing, Gagarin encountered some Russian farmers, and told them, “Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!” The Americans answered with the launch of Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961, a short suborbital flight. However, it provided important data for the American program, and astronaut Alan Shepard would be the first to exercise manual control over a spacecraft. The Russians would follow Vostok 1 four months later with Vostok 2, when Gherman Titov spent just over 25 hours in space and made 17 orbits of the Earth. The American orbital response finally came on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn became the first American, but the third man, to orbit the Earth in Friendship 7. Though Gagarin was the first into space, and served as a backup crew for the ill-fated Soyuz 1, it would be his only flight into space. He was named a Hero of the Soviet Union, his nation’s highest honor, and became an international celebrity, and would go on to serve as the deputy training director of the Cosmonaut Training Center. However, his fame would be short-lived. Gagarin was killed on March 27, 1968 in the crash of his Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 trainer at the age of 34. The cause of the crash is still a matter of debate.


Short Take Off


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April 9, 1964 – The first flight of the de Havilland Canada DHC-5 Buffalo, a cargo and transport aircraft developed from the DHC-4 Caribou and designed for extremely short takeoffs, specifically from rugged or unimproved airstrips. Unlike its piston-powered predecessor, the Buffalo is powered by a pair of General Electric CT64 turboprop engines. The Buffalo was originally pursued by the US Army as a replacement for the Caribou before all fixed-wing aircraft were transferred to the US Air Force, who wasn’t interested in the aircraft. Though only 122 were built, the type certificates for all the de Havilland transports were purchased by Viking Air in Canada who plans to restart production of a newer, more powerful version of the Buffalo. (Photo by Ahut via Wikimedia Commons)


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April 9, 1959 – NASA names the Mercury 7, the seven original American astronauts who took part in the manned Project Mercury spaceflights from May 1961 to May 1963. Alan Shepard was the first Mercury astronaut to travel in space in 1961, just one month after Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. He was followed by Gus Grissom, then John Glenn, who would be America’s first astronaut to orbit the Earth. They were followed by Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper. The seventh member of the group, Deke Slayton, was grounded for health reasons, but served as NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations until 1972. The Mercury 7 would go on to form the core of American astronauts, flying in all NASA space missions in the 20th century. (NASA photo)


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April 9, 1899 – The birth of James Smith McDonnell. Following the failure of McDonnell’s first aircraft in 1927, the Doodlebug, McDonnell Aviation was founded in 1939 as a major aircraft parts producer during WWII. Though its first military aircraft, the XP-67 Bat, was also unsuccessful, McDonnell Aircraft found great success after WWII with the development of jet fighters such as the FH Phantom, the F2H Banshee, the F3H Demon, the F-101 Voodoo, and the legendary F-4 Phantom II. In 1967, McDonnell Aircraft merged with Douglas Aircraft to form McDonnell Douglas. The new company produced some of the most successful military and civilian aircraft in history, including the F-15 Eagle, the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, the DC-8, the DC-9 and its derivatives, and the DC-10, plus numerous helicopters, missiles and space vehicles. James McDonnell died in 1980, and McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1997. (McDonnell photo via University of Arkansas Libraries; F-4 photo via US Navy)


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April 10, 1963 – The first flight of the EWR VJ 101, a supersonic VTOL fighter developed as a replacement for the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. The five-year test program saw the completion of two aircraft, the X-1 and the X-2. The X-1 performed the first successful hover in April 1963, then the first transition to forward flight in September 1963. In all, a total of 40 aerodynamic flights, 24 hover flights and 14 full transitions were performed. On July 29, 1964, the X-1 reached Mach 1.04 without using an afterburner, and while the program showed promise, it was canceled in 1968. (Photo by Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia Commons)


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April 11, 1943 – The first flight of the Piasecki PV-2, the second successful helicopter flown in the US after the Sikorski VS-300. Constructed as a technology demonstrator, the PV-2 introduced new features such as dynamically balanced rotor blades, a rigid tail rotor with a tension-torsion pitch changing system and full cyclic and collective pitch control. Only one example was ever produced, and it is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. (Photo author unknown)


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April 11, 1952 – The first flight of the Piasecki H/CH-21 Shawnee, a multi-mission tandem rotor helicopter originally developed from the HRP Rescuer and designed for Arctic rescue missions, featuring full winterization for polar climates. Nicknamed the “Flying Banana,” the Shawnee was the primary troop carrying helicopter in the early days of the Vietnam War, though its cold-weather design was poorly suited to the hot jungle climate of southeast Asia. The Shawnee was removed from service in 1965 with the arrival of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey. (US Air Force photo)


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April 12, 1935 – The first flight of the Bristol Blenheim, a British light bomber that saw extensive service early in WWII. It was one of the first British aircraft to employ retractable landing gear, a powered gun turret and variable-pitch propellers. While the Blenheim was capable of outrunning most fighters in the early days of the war, it was no match for the Messerschmitt Bf 109 during daylight bombing raids. The British retired the Blenheim in 1944, though it served in Finland until 1956. (Photo author unknown)


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